Penile Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2019

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing penile cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors can increase the risk of developing penile cancer:

  • HPV infection. The most important risk factor for penile cancer is infection with this virus. Sexual activity with a person who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. You can reduce your risk of HPV infection by limiting your number of sex partners, because having many partners increases the risk of HPV. Using a condom cannot fully protect you from HPV during sex. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.

  • Smoking. Smoking tobacco may contribute to the development of penile cancer, especially in people who also have HPV.

  • Age. Penile cancer is most common in men older than 50. In the United States, the average age of diagnosis for penile cancer is about 68 years. However, black men and Hispanic men are more likely to be diagnosed earlier, at an average age of 60. In the United States, about 80% of men with penile cancer are at least 55 when diagnosed. Worldwide, about 20% of men diagnosed with penile cancer are younger than 40.

  • Phimosis. Phimosis occurs when the foreskin becomes tight and is difficult to retract. People with phimosis have an increased risk of developing penile cancer. This is most likely because those with phimosis are less likely to be able to thoroughly clean the penis. Poor penile hygiene increases the chances of chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer. There are surgical and nonsurgical treatments available for phimosis. It can also be prevented with circumcision.

  • Smegma. Smegma is a thick substance that can build up under the foreskin. It is caused by dead skin cells, bacteria, and oily secretions from the skin. Smegma was previously believed to increase the chances of developing penile cancer, but there is very little evidence supporting that belief. If smegma does cause cancer, called carcinogenic, that would explain the connection between phimosis and penile cancer. Regardless, good penile hygiene is recommended. Those who are uncircumcised should pull back, or retract, the foreskin and thoroughly wash the penis on a regular basis. This is to make sure that smegma does not irritate the penis.

  • HIV/AIDS. Infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a risk factor for penile cancer. HIV is the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). When a person has HIV, the immune system is less able to fight off early-stage cancer.

  • Psoriasis treatment. The drug psoralen combined with ultraviolet (UV) light may increase the risk of developing penile cancer.

Prevention

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause penile cancer, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent penile cancer, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

  • Circumcision. Circumcision before adulthood appears to provide some protection from penile cancer. People who have been circumcised in their youth have a much lower rate of penile cancer, and epidermoid/squamous cell carcinoma of the penis almost never occurs in such men. However, it is important to note that circumcision reduces but does not eliminate the risk of penile cancer.

  • Personal hygiene. Carefully and completely cleaning under the foreskin on a regular basis can lower the risk of developing penile cancer.

  • Lifestyle factors. Not smoking and avoiding sexual practices that could lead to an HPV or HIV/AIDS infection can help lower your risk of penile cancer.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems penile cancer can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.